Instant Gratification and the ADHD Brain: How to Navigate a Culture of Immediacy

In the first of a series exploring how Social Work research impacts our coaching, Hampton Tutors coach and candidate on UW's Master of Social Work Program, Gina Nepa, explains how an ADHD student can manage their learning. 

   Photo by Alice Moore on Unsplash

 Photo by Alice Moore on Unsplash


We live in a culture in which we are repeatedly indoctrinated with expectations of instantaneous delivery. Because we’re able to send and receive messages with a click, our brains remain constantly activated and on “alert.” That nagging feeling of never quite feeling caught up inadvertently seeps into school performance and, ironically, prevents students from accessing the emotional regulation necessary to efficiently complete schoolwork.

We have come to associate many personality markers with ADHD: executive function challenges, easy distractibility, a harried response to a highly-detailed assignment. Although ADHD clearly has a physiological basis, the diagnostic markers are also a somewhat normal response to a culture of immediacy and unrelenting social and academic pressures. Jackson and MacKillop (2016) found that individuals with ADHD tended to face more challenges delaying gratification than their non-ADHD peers. This ADHD sample, in fact, derived significant pleasure from short-term rewards, and subsequently funneled more energy into obtaining short-term rather than long-term benefits. We see these results come into play when our students neglect planning for a project or keeping up with textbook notes, but can always be relied on to answer that text message from a friend.

So what can be done? There are several methods of appeasing instant gratification urges while simultaneously orienting the brain to long-term needs. Creating a homework space that incorporates “background” rewards, such as music[1] or snacks, can aid students in satisfying immediate pleasures while staying task-directed. Maintaining a rewards or “points” system with your student can also incentivize the brain to reorient. Just as stimulants produce a seemingly opposite effect on those with ADHD, so too can the intentional implementation of “distractors” in your student’s space.

Jackson, & Mackillop. (2016). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Monetary Delay Discounting: A Meta-Analysis of Case-Control Studies. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, 1(4), 316-325.

Pelham, William E., Waschbusch, Daniel A., Hoza, Betsy, Gnagy, Elizabeth M., Greiner, Andrew R., Sams, Susan E., Carter, Randy L. (2011). Music and Video as Distractors for Boys with ADHD in the Classroom: Comparison with Controls, Individual Differences, and Medication Effects. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology,39(8), 1085-1098.

[1] Pelham et al., “Music and Video as Distractors,” p. 1085.

Many of our coaches are highly experienced working with students who have ADHD, helping them develop the executive function skills needed to success in school.

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